Bulgaria welcomes European Commission adoption of strategy for Western Balkans

Bulgaria welcomes European Commission adoption of strategy for Western Balkans
Bulgaria's Ministry of Foreign Affairs Bulgaria said on February 6 that welcomes the Strategy for the Western Balkans, adopted the same day by the European Commission.

"A number of our ideas have found a place in it," Bulgaria's Foreign Ministry said.

"The document recognizes the strategic importance of the region for Europe. This is precisely what we have been trying to bring back the region to the EU's agenda, which has happened for the first time in 15 years," the ministry said.

After the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003, now for the first time in May 2018, Bulgaria will bring together all the leaders of Europe and the region to move faster together towards our common goal, the statement said.

The strategy applies to all six countries, which should accelerate reforms and build good neighbourly relations. Progress will continue to be based on the individual achievements of each individual country, no country that is ready will have to wait for another.

Countries in the region have a clear time perspective. The year 2025 is an ambitious goal whose implementation requires mobilization for decisive reforms in key areas of political, economic and social life.

"Bulgaria is particularly pleased that with today's Communication, the European Union clearly declares its readiness to provide additional support for the success of reforms and the improvement of citizens' lives. This is also the definite Bulgarian position, which the country defends consistently."

"We welcome the EC's readiness to support the countries of the Western Balkans with six new initiatives to strengthen the rule of law, security and migration, socio-economic development, transport and energy connectivity, the digital agenda and the abandonment of roaming and good neighborly relations."

The strategy adopted by the European Commission on February 6 envisages 'A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans'.

The strategy, the Commission said, spells out the priorities and areas of joint reinforced cooperation, addressing the specific challenges the Western Balkans face, in particular the need for fundamental reforms and good neighbourly relations.

"A credible enlargement perspective requires sustained efforts and irreversible reforms. Progress along the European path is an objective and merit-based process which depends on the concrete results achieved by each individual country."

The European Commission announced six flagship initiatives - specific actions that the EU will take over the next years to support the transformation efforts of the Western Balkans in areas of mutual interest.

These range from initiatives to strengthen the rule of law, reinforced cooperation on security and migration through joint investigating teams and the European Border and coast guard, expanding the EU Energy Union to the Western Balkans or lowering roaming charges and rolling out broadband in the region. The Strategy also underlines the need for the EU to be prepared to welcome new members once they have met the criteria.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker stated: ”Investing in the stability and prosperity of the Western Balkans means investing in the security and future of our Union.

"Although there will be no further enlargements under this mandate, today the European Commission is charting the European path ahead for the Western Balkans," Juncker said.

"With strong political will, real and sustained reforms, and definitive solutions to disputes with neighbours, the Western Balkans can move forward on their respective European paths. Whether this is achieved will depend on their objective merits. The European Commission will be rigorous but it will also be fair," he said.

Juncker said that he would travel to each of the countries of the Western Balkans at the end of this month with a clear message: "keep reforming and we will keep supporting your European future".

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said:"The Western Balkans are part of Europe: we share the same history, the same geography, the same cultural heritage and the same opportunities and challenges today and in the future.

"We have a common interest in working more and more closely together to guarantee to our people economic and social development, and security. This strategy shows the path that we have ahead of us: for all our six partners to overcome once and for all the past, for all of us together to make the process of the Western Balkans towards the European Union irreversible and keep reuniting the Continent.

"This Strategy gives all of us a shared, clear, unequivocal, credible and concrete perspective for each and every one of our six partners' EU integration. The next months will be not only intense but also crucial to make sure that this historic and unique opportunity is seized," she said.

In order to meet the EU membership criteriaand in their own interest, the Western Balkans need to implement comprehensive reforms in crucial areas, the Commission said.

"The rule of law, fundamental rights and governancemust be strengthened significantly. Judicial reforms, the fight against corruption and organised crime, and public administration reform need to deliver real results and the functioning of democratic institutions need to be seriously enhanced. Economic reforms must be pursued with vigour so that structural weaknesses, low competitiveness and high unemployment rates are addressed."

All countries must unequivocally commit, in both word and deed, to overcome the legacy of the past, by achieving reconciliation and solving open issues, in particular border disputes, well before accession to the European Union.

There needs to be a comprehensive, legally-binding normalisation agreement between Serbia and Kosovo so that they can advance on their respective European paths.

The Commission said that the EU is already the most important donor and investor in the region as well as political partner of the Western Balkans.

The EU is also the Western Balkans' largest trading partner with an annual total trade volume of 43 billion euro (2016).

To deliver on the Western Balkans Strategy and support a seamless transition to membership, adequate funding is indispensable, the Commission said.

The European Commission proposes to gradually increase funding under the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA) until 2020 in so far as reallocations within the existing envelope allow. In 2018 alone, 1.07 billion euro of pre-accession assistance for the Western Balkans is already foreseen, on top of almost nine billion euro from the 2007-2017 period./IBNA

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